We might gain some temporary relief by venting to someone about our partner, while limiting our potential for a healthy, trusting relationship. When we decide to tell a friend, family member, or coworker personal stuff about our Honey, it is often when we are really upset about something. At times like these, our perspectives are often negatively skewed, reflecting our frustration, hurt feelings, or guilt. So what we tell them may represent our negative emotions more than our Sweetheart. We often do this to get someone to take our side, or agree with us, to gain some immediate relief; instead of sitting with the situation ourselves to calm down and figure it out, or talking with our partner about it. And the person we are talking to only has what we tell them to go on (they don’t know what really happened, or the context surrounding it). It may be easier, and more immediately relieving, to avoid our partner and the problem, while seeking sympathy, attention, and support from someone else. But doing so often creates new and bigger problems, while erecting walls of silence, or driving a wedge of distance, between us and the one we love. So, despite how we feel in the moment, we usually benefit more from keeping relationship stuff between ourselves and our partner, or by sharing it together with a trusted professional. *If we are experiencing actual violence or abuse, then we need to take immediate action to protect ourselves, our kids, and our pets (e.g. leaving, or calling 911 or the police).
If we are upset, either because of something our partner said or did to us, or something we said or did to them that we are trying to flip around and blame them for; and if we tell someone our upset version of what happened while seeking their support; then we might be setting wheels in motion, or heading in a direction, that could be difficult to stop or turn around. When we are filled with rage, resentment, or self righteous indignation, it is unlikely that we are seeing things clearly. If we talk to someone about a relationship conflict while in this state, we may be exaggerating or even fabricating things to support our position (making things up to match the level of our upset); without realizing we are doing it. And the person we are talking to will likely be concerned, and may automatically plug what we are telling them into a familiar perceptual framework, like abuse or gender issues. If our description of what happened is extreme enough, and if it includes threats of violence, bullying, or rights violations; then our supporter may encourage us to take action to remedy the alleged concern. Even if we later go back and tell them the truth (e.g. that we were villainizing our partner to get sympathy and attention, and that what we said wasn’t true), the person we talked to may not believe us. They might think we are just minimizing the situation now, to avoid or deny what needs to be done. And we might not go back and tell them the truth anyway. Either way, what we tell them leaves a lasting imprint that is likely to affect their perception of our partner and relationship. And if they are someone we care about, or value, then we may be tempted to return to our fictional version of the story, and then generalize its features to the re-characterization of our partner or relationship. We do this because we don’t want to seem like we were wrong, or look bad in their eyes; and because we want to continue receiving their attention, sympathy, and support (ego). This is especially probable if we don’t go back and clarify with our suppporter what the truth is immediately following the incident.
The more we share such fictional stories with others, the more likely we are to continue believing they are true. When others remind us, because we told them, of the fictional version of the story (as if it were true), it reinforces this distorted belief within us, and makes us more likely to continue believing it. A fictional story about a particular situation could also be called a situational recharacterization. This means our ego recharacterizes, or fictionally alters, the situation to make it match the distorted perceptions generated by our negative emotions. For example, if we explode into anger and say some hurtful things to our Sweetheart in a conversation, grow defensive and blame them for picking on us when what they actually did was offer to help us clean the house because we hadn’t gotten to it yet, and then if we choose to continue believing that we were the victim of being picked on instead of accepting that we were acting angry and hurtful because we felt guilty about not doing the cleaning yet; we are investing in an ego-generated fictional story, or situational recharacterization. We are choosing to avoid the truth of what happened (that we were angry and hurtful to our partner when they offered to help) and how we really feel about it (regretful, guilty, ashamed); and instead allowing our ego to recharacterize the situation to make it seem like our partner did something to us (picked on us) and that our new negative emotions (anger and indignation, which were transformed from our actual feelings of regret, guilt, or shame) are the result of being picked on, instead of the real feelings which were caused by our own angry outburst. So we first felt guilty because we had not cleaned yet, and defensively turned this guilt into anger when our partner offered to help. We then turned their offer to help into picking on us to justify our anger. We then feel more angry and self righteously indignant, like a victim; instead of recognizing that we feel guilty because we haven’t yet followed through with our responsibilities; and then more guilty, regretful, and ashamed for taking this out on our partner, whose offer of help highlighted to us what we were already feeling guilty about. And then if we share this distorted, recharacterized view of what happened and how we feel about it with someone else, to get their sympathy, attention, and support; we are strengthening the fictional story (both within our own mind, and also through influencing the beliefs of others with whom we have ongoing contact).
In addition to strengthening such situational re-characterizations, over-sharing with others can also lead to contextual re-characterization; where, in our mind, we completely change the surrounding and supporting thoughts, feelings, memories, attitudes, and experiences (context) related to what happened to match our upset, fictional version of it. The more we change the context to match the fiction, the easier it becomes to believe the distortions, and the harder it is to find the truth. If we choose to do this, then we can literally change something that was neutral or positive into a destructive nightmare! Going down this path can lead to 911 calls, police involvement, restraining orders, criminal records, losses of parental rights, separations, or divorces; as a result of fictional stories in our heads; all because we reacted strongly to something and then told someone else about it while we were still upset to get them to take our side. Does this help us solve the problem, or does it make the original problem worse, and create new and bigger ones? When we do this long enough, we don’t even know what is real anymore.
Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries can aid in the prevention of damages to our relationship caused by over-sharing. Boundaries are the invisible barriers we construct between ourselves and others to protect us from unwanted, and potentially harmful intrusions into our privacy and personal lives. It is important that we develop enough awareness to distinguish between our true nature and ego before establishing our boundaries. If they are based on our ego, then they will represent the issues and defenses our ego generates. If this happens, we let people into our personal, private space based on how well they feed our ego, instead of how well they accept and respect us and our choices. For example, if we have ego issues of inadequacy, and if one of the ways our ego manages this issue is through attention seeking to establish our worth by proving ourselves or dressing sexy, then we might let anyone that gives us the kind of attention we want into our innermost circle — without knowing anything about them or their motives, and without considering the consequences of our choices. Ego-based boundaries are predicated upon very different principles than those created from our true nature. They are based on how people help us get what we want and avoid what we don’t want in the moment (like a pre-school child), instead of what we truly value, what is important to us, and what is responsible. After we figure out what our real boundaries are, those based on our true nature, we need to be able to recognize when they are being violated.
So how do we know when our boundaries are being crossed? How do we recognize when someone is trespassing into levels of our privacy we don’t want them in? How do we flag these encroachers? For the sake of this post, let’s break boundaries down into the broad categories of verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical. Verbal trespassers may not allow us to speak or be heard, they may raise their voices and/or scream at us, they may say things that are derogatory or inflammatory about our integrity and character, and/or they may gossip about us. Psychological and emotional boundary crossers might prey upon our sense of self and self-esteem, using what we tell them in confidence against us, lying to us, criticizing, demeaning, judging, or manipulating us, making fun of us, our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs; they might try to make us feel guilty or responsible for them or a situation; they sometimes make demands of our time and energy; they might try to shame or embarrass us; they could bully us, or try to convince us that their thoughts and beliefs are superior to and more important than our own. Physical encroachers might move into our personal space, touch us without permission, act inappropriate or too familiar, especially sexually, (including sexual references and overtures), touch or handle things that belong to us, violate our privacy (cell phone, computer, social media contacts, personal records), damage or destroy our personal property, and/or threaten us with physical harm.
These examples of boundary crossing are not specific to any particular boundary level (Friends, Acquaintances, etc.). They could potentially occur at any level, and could be a prompt to change the level we currently have someone placed in. They are offered as examples of boundary infringements in each of these broad boundary categories (verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical).
Such encroaching interlopers feel entitled to get whatever they want, whatever they ask for, whatever they think they need. They don’t really understand where they end and where we begin, and don’t consider us, or how crossing our boundaries could affect us. So, to put a stop to such intrusions, let’s take a look at one possible model of healthy boundaries.
Since healthy boundaries may vary pursuant to relationship status and age, the model presented in this post is intended for adults in committed relationships. I developed the content, and my wife created the graphic illustrating the model presented here. It is specifically intended for those sharing a heart-centered love relationship (Fourth Chakra Love). If you don’t have this kind of love, then you may not fully understand the rationales behind these boundary levels, but you could still benefit from using the model. When we learn to accept the things we can’t yet understand, we can remove the limitations from our lives.
If we are unaware of ourselves, then we are equally as unaware of others. If we are unaware of ourselves and others, then we are vulnerable to the degree to which we are unaware (vulnerable to our own ego and also the unknown intentions of others). Increasing our self awareness will aid us in the establishment of healthy boundaries. After creating our boundary levels it is time to plug people into them. For example, if we identify a boundary level as “Close Friends,” and carefully define what this means; the next step is to place the people in this level that best fit into it (e.g. Caty, Amanda, Suzanne). And, over time, we may need to move people from one boundary level to another. For example, if someone violates our trust at the level we currently have them in, then we may need to move them to a level that is not as close, decreasing their access to our personal life. On the other hand, if someone shows us over time that they fully accept and respect our choices, values, and relationship; then we may move them a level closer. So boundaries are flexible, people’s position in them can change over time, and it is up to us to monitor those we interact with pursuant to their acceptance of and respect for the boundary level we have placed them in. It is helpful when conceptualizing boundaries, and also when operationalizing them, to pre-establish limit setting messages that will help empower us to stand our ground, or push people back, when needed. These could consist of simple statements like “I’m sorry, but that’s too personal;” or “I told you I’m not interested, so don’t try to contact me anymore;” or “What you’re saying sounds trashy, and I’m not a trashy person;” or “I have a different life and set of priorities now, and if you can’t accept and respect them, then we won’t be in contact anymore;” or “That’s between my wife/husband and me.” Remember, if you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything.
Following is one possible boundary model. Please consider it a template to use as is, or start from if you decide to create your own. The above illustration can serve as a quick reference guide. It is helpful to enter peoples’ names in the levels they belong in, and also for you and your beloved to create and practice using some limit setting messages (like role playing). This can be sweet fun, and makes it easier to remember it in the moment as things are going down.
Core Connection: The one with whom you share a committed, heart-centered love relationship. This is the innermost of the circles. Only you and your companion belong here. No one else.
Angels: Those who completely and selflessly accept and respect you and your choices without attempting to benefit personally from the relationship. Trust is absolute, and any benefits occur naturally through the shared experiences. They sacrifice their own needs for yours, and want nothing in return. They recognize and respect the limits you set, and never attempt to push beyond them. (Many have no-one at this boundary level).
Close Friends: Those who accept and respect you and your choices, usually share time and meaningful experiences with you, would support you in your time of need, and generally focus on what is best for you. They have proven themselves trustworthy over time. They may overstep their bounds in some situations, feeling entitled to do so, if they believe they are helping you. This is one reason not to generally over-share, and specifically not to share personal/private information about your relationship. Extended family may reach this level if they are accepting and respectful of your relationship and other choices.
Friends and Extended Family: Those who share some common interests and experiences with you, but may fail to accept and respect you and your choices in important ways. They are often more interested in getting something from you than contributing to the relationship. They may ignore the limits you set, and push to enter your more personal, private space. Previously Close Friends, those who fail to respect your limit setting measures, may end up at this boundary level.
Acquaintances: Those you have met, but do not know well enough to determine whether or not they accept and respect you and your choices. Time will tell.
The Public: those you may observe or interact with while living life, but have not formally met, and know little or nothing about.
Violaters: Those who have repeatedly chosen to ignore the limits you set, and have pushed into your personal, private space. They fail to accept or respect you and your choices, may violate your rights, and have no regard for you, your best interest, or sometimes even your safety. Remove them completely from your life. You may need to block them from your phone, text, email, messenger, and social media accounts. You may even need to get a restraining order to protect yourself from their unwanted, intrusive, or threatening behavior.
Maintaining healthy boundaries is especially difficult for adult children who have not successfully differentiated from their family of origin (parents and siblings). This means the adult children are still basing their identity, beliefs, and emotions; like a shared identity, group mind, or shared emotional skin; on their family of origin; so are unable to break free and start a new family of their own; either as an individual, a partner in a relationship, or as parent-partners with their own kids. This is because they still see their original family as their highest priority. When this happens, the families of origin may maintain a hold on the adult children. The adult children often feel obligated, responsible, and guilty if they do not do what the family wants.
The family of origin may have little respect for the newly formed families; may see them as a threat; and may try to control their adult child or sibling by guilting or shaming them into compliance with their wishes. They may say things like “family is forever,” or “family is everything,” or “blood is thicker than water;” without considering the fact that their adult child or sibling has started a new family now. They may also try to sabotage healthy, loving relationships in order to keep their family member where they want them (in the place they are familiar with). This concept — trying to push or pull family members back into the familiar steady state — is a systems dynamic called family homeostasis.
It is critically important to the success of our relationships that we differentiate from our family of origin. If we don’t, then it is likely that we will over-share about our relationship with our parents and siblings. Doing this is allowing them into our innermost circle, which often keeps us from discovering who we really are (apart from what they want us to be or see us as), may hurt our partner’s feelings, and may harm or even destroy our relationship. It keeps us from being able to make our relationship the priority it deserves to be. If we are one of these parents or siblings, we may be harming someone we love without even realizing it. Because of the deep roots, and potentially strong ties, we sometimes need help from a qualified professional to effectively break free from these destructive dynamics. Successful differentiation from our family of origin will free us up to live and love our lives. It will allow us to establish our values, priorities, responsibilities, and boundaries based on who we are — not what they are. In healthy families, such differentiation naturally occurs around the time of launching (leaving home as a young adult).
Keep It To Yourself
So when it comes to the personal, private things in our relationship, everyone involved would be better served if we kept them between ourselves and our partner. Such things could include, but are not limited to: intimacy, finances, arguments, disagreements, parenting, prioritizing, lifestyle choices, healthcare decisions, and all matters sacred to your relationship. If you and your companion together decide that you want to talk to someone else about some of these things, then so be it — but only after you and your partner have agreed upon who and what it is. Make sense? Most people I work with say this only seems natural, once they stop and think about it. If you are feeling resistant to the idea, then it might be helpful to trace the resistance back to its source, and then address what is causing it (the resistance). When we contain the personal, private relationship things to our relationship, we will prevent the creation of bigger problems caused by over-sharing. Establishing healthy boundaries and differentiating from our family of origin will help us have a healthier, happier life and love. So, please remember to keep it to yourself!
Photo credit: Ruud van Eck